Jacques Israelievitch, CM, violinist, violist, conductor, teacher (born 6 May 1948 in Cannes, France; died 5 September 2015 in Toronto, Ontario). Violinist Jacques Israelievitch was renowned internationally for his versatility, sensitivity and virtuosic technical ability. After studying in Paris and playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, Israelievitch became the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s longest-serving concertmaster (1998 to 2008). A supporter of contemporary music and Canadian composers, he made more than 100 recordings and performed often with noted orchestras and in chamber ensembles worldwide. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada and an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.
Jacques Israelievitch grew up in a Jewish family in Paris and Le Mans, France the oldest son of five children. He began studying music at age eight and quickly exhibited the abilities of a child prodigy. At age 11, he graduated from the Conservatoire of Le Mans with a first prize (their youngest graduate) and debuted on French radio. A wealthy patron, Elizabeth Couturie, helped to pay for his education. Israelievitch’s father owned a clothing store in Le Mans, but eventually anti-Semitic persecution caused the family business to fail. When Jacques was 13 the family moved to Paris, where his father opened a convenience store.
Education and Training
In Paris, Israelievitch’s education was sponsored by the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (mother-in-law of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky). At the Conservatoire de Paris, Israelievitch studied under the renowned Henryk Szeryng and René Benedetti, and graduated at 16 with first prizes in violin, chamber music and solfège. He then attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris. In 1965, while still in his teens, he was the youngest musician to compete in the prestigious International Paganini Competition for violinists, and tied for fifth place.
With a Rothschild Foundation grant, Israelievitch then pursued a music degree at the University of Indiana, where he studied under Janos Starker, William Primrose and Josef Gingold. Intent on a career as a concert violinist, Israelievitch was concertmaster of the student orchestra and, under his professors’ guidance, became interested in orchestral and ensemble playing. After leaving university to complete compulsory service in the French military (where he played with the Air Force band), Israelievitch returned to the United States.
Career Highlights and Repertoire
In 1972, at age 23, Israelievitch began his professional career as assistant concertmaster and the youngest player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also founded the Camerata Society of Chicago, a chamber group specializing in rare musical works. He then served as concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony for ten years, starting in 1978.
After accepting an offer to become concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) he moved to Toronto and first performed in this position in September 1988. For the next twenty years, Israelievitch led the strings and appeared regularly as soloist with the TSO. From that time until his death, his musical career was centred in Toronto.
In demand as a sensitive and technically versatile soloist, Israelievitch appeared with other orchestras across North America, including the Vancouver and Edmonton symphonies and the CBC Radio Orchestra. He also performed with celebrated artists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Leonard Slatkin. Israelievitch’s wide repertoire ranged from the Baroque masters through large-scale Romantic, contemporary and Canadian works.
Israelievitch was also active as a chamber musician in addition to his TSO duties. He founded or performed in such chamber ensembles as the Toronto Symphony Quartet, the Mirage Quintet, The Test Tubes and the Israelievitch-Smith-Ahn Trio. He also became known for the Jacques and Friends chamber music series at the George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art.
With his percussionist son Michael, Israelievitch formed the Israelievitch Duo in 1999, commissioning music for violin and percussion and performing across Canada and the US. Among the works they championed was Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Double Concerto for Violin and Percussion.
As a conductor, Israelievitch frequently led the TSO and guest-conducted such orchestras as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and orchestras in Asia and Europe. He was also musical director of the Koffler Centre Chamber Orchestra in 2005 and directed it until 2014.
Recitals and Special Concerts
Israelievitch gave countless solo recitals, often playing music by composers from his native France, such as at the French Embassy in Washington, DC in 1999 and at the French consulate in Toronto in 2003. He also toured and performed in Europe, Israel, China and Japan. His 50th birthday was celebrated with a concert, in which he performed, comprising works by Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Michel Colgrass, Murray Adaskin and Raymond Luedeke. In 2008, CBC Radio broadcast a concert celebrating his twentieth and final year as concertmaster of the TSO.
At age 60, in June 2008, Israelievitch retired from the TSO as their longest-serving concertmaster. He then pursued chamber and solo engagements, and taught violin and viola at York University, the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music. He also served as chair of the string department at the Chautauqua School of Music in New York State and gave many master classes (e.g., at McGill University, UCLA, the Manhattan and Eastman music schools, the University of Michigan, and in Europe and Asia). His final public appearance was in July 2015 at Chautauqua, with pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico.
Israelievitch made over 100 recordings, including the Juno Award-nominated Suite Hébraïque (with John Greer, piano). He often recorded with other Canadian musicians, such as harpist Judy Loman, bassist Joel Quarrington, pianist Stéphane Lemelin and tenor Ben Heppner. A champion of Canadian composers, Israelievitch recorded such works as Schafer’s 1991 violin concerto, The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveler, which the TSO commissioned specifically for him. With Petrowska Quilico, he made the live recording Fancies and Interludes (2015), which features works by contemporary Canadian composers.
In 2006, Israelievitch edited the score of Rodolphe Kreutzer’s 42 Studies for Solo Violin and made the first complete recording of these studies. During his final illness, he recorded the complete Mozart violin and piano concertos with Quilico, which were released in June 2016.
Charitable Involvement and Arts Patronage
Israelievitch was devoted to protesting anti-Semitism and performed at a PEN human rights gala in 1996. He also played on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901 – 2001 (2007). With his wife, Gabrielle, Israelievitch commissioned many artworks, particularly ceramic art, from Canadian artists.
Following his death, York University established the Jacques Israelievitch Endowment for Violin/Viola and Interdisciplinary Arts.
Fifth Prize, International Paganini Competition (1965)
Chevalier, Order of Arts and Letters, France (1995)
Officer, Order of Arts and Letters, France (2004)
Lifetime Achievement Award, Toronto Musicians Association (2008)
Member, Order of Canada (2015)